About two months before the start of the 2019 World Cup in France where it was scheduled to defend its title as World Cup Champions, the US Women Soccer Team sued its employer, the United States Soccer Federation, Inc. (“Federation”), for equal pay. Back in 2019, at the time the lawsuit was filed, the US Women Soccer Team (“Women's Team”) had won a record three World Cup championships, four Olympic gold medals, and many other international competitions. For the last 13 years, it has been ranked number one in the world.
In contrast, the US Men Soccer Team (“Men's Team”) has never won a World Cup or an Olympic gold medal. In the 2018 World Cup event, they were eliminated early and did not even qualify to the knockout stage.
However, the United States Soccer Federation, Inc. (“Federation”) the common employer of both the Women's Team and Men's Team, has consistently paid the women athletes substantially less than their male counterparts. For example, a comparison of the Women's Team and Men's Team pay shows that if each team played 20 friendlies in a year and each team won all twenty friendlies, female players would earn a maximum of $99,000 or $4,950 per game, while their counterpart male players would earn an average of $263,320 or $13,166 per game. A female player being asked to try out for the World Cup team is paid $15,000 while a similar male player would earn $55,000.
Players are paid a bonus for each advance to the World Cup. In 2014, the men advanced several rounds but were ultimately eliminated. However, they still earned a performance bonus totaling $5,375,000. When the women's turn came in 2015, they won the Word Cup and were paid only $1,725,000. The women were paid nearly four times less than the men while performing better.
The Women's Team had asked the Federation several times to be paid equal to the Men's Team. The Federation refused. The Federation has publicly admitted that it pays the Women's Team less than the Men's Team but defended the practice by saying that “market realities are such that the women do not deserve to be paid equally to the men.” It claimed that the female players do not generate as much money as the males due to fewer viewers.
The Women's Team refuted the Federation's claims, stating that the Federation continued its “intentional gender discrimination” even when the Women's Team earned more profit (for the Federation), played more games, won more championships, and garnered higher television audiences. For example, during the 2015 World Cup title game, the women garnered approximately 23 million viewers, making it the most-watched soccer game in American TV history – male or female. Because of this, the Women's Team claimed that the Federation had no legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the gross disparity in pay. Nor can the pay difference be explained away by any bona fide seniority, merit or incentive system, or any other factor other than sex.
The federal Equal Pay Act prohibits employers from discriminating against their employees on the basis of sex by paying lesser wages to employees of the opposite sex for “equal work.” These include jobs, the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions. The exceptions are made based on (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex. The women also claim that the Federation's discriminatory conduct on the basis of gender violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
(California's Fair Pay Act, in contrast, prohibits employers from paying employees less than those of the opposite sex for “substantially similar work,” even if their titles are different or they work at different sites. This means the lower-paid employee does not have to prove that the higher-paid employee of the opposite sex has exactly the same job as she (or he) does.)
In May 2020, the Women's Team suffered a setback when the judge on the case essentially dismissed the women's equal pay claims, ruling that during the class period in question, each women's player actually made more money per game than their male counterparts. The women appealed, stressing that a closer look at their rates of pay would show that the women had to win more games than the men to receive their bonuses.
On February 22, 2022, the Women's Team and the Federation jointly announced that they had arrived at a settlement where the Women's Team named in the lawsuit agreed to a total of $22 million in back pay. The Federation has also agreed to pay an additional $2 million into an account designed to benefit the Women's Team in their post-career goals and other charitable efforts related to women's soccer. Each player will be able to apply for up to $50,000 from this fund. This agreement is contingent on a collective bargaining agreement between the parties which is yet to be finalized. The settlement will also require court approval. Be that as it may, both sides are hopeful that this is the first step to pay equality.